Trump Plays the President on Teevee

Trump Maladministration

The Washington Post is reporting that “The White House” is putting pressure on Republican governors to endorse the Senate’s monstrous health care bill. The “White House” in this case consists of Veep Mike Pence, HHS secretary Tom Price, and Seema Verma, also a Trump appointee, who is administrator of the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services. The alleged POTUS is not part of this effort.

Granted, Trump has been in Paris busily engaged in weird handshakes …

… and saying inappropriate things to Brigitte Macron. And this weekend he is busy attending the U.S. Women’s Open golf tournament in Bedminster, NJ. Priorities, people. But it should be noted that otherwise he hasn’t really been much engaged in anything lately, other than tweeting. Many have noted that his schedule often is weirdly empty. Many others have commented that he doesn’t do many things presidents normally do.

The president did engage personally on health care earlier in the year, courting groups of lawmakers in the Oval Office and making rounds of calls, eventually claiming partial credit when a version of the legislation passed the House. But those overtures to reticent lawmakers over Diet Cokes have largely faded as Senate Republicans have labored to pass their version of the bill, long the party’s signature pledge to its base.

Trump, who has ventured west of the Mississippi River only once as president, has barely mentioned health care on his few stops outside Washington and his golf properties in Florida and New Jersey. He has done little beyond tweeting to rally his base in support of the plan and has not stepped foot in the state of a Republican lawmaker who might be needed to pass the bill in the Senate.

At his most recent political rally — in Cedar Rapids, Iowa, in late June — he made just a few scattered references to the issue.

“I think health care’s going to happen,” Trump said. “You’re going to have a lot of exciting things over the next few months.”

He was engaged with the House health care bill, but it seems once that passed the House he lost interest in what was going on in Congress. He’s leaving the work of pushing an agenda through Congress to Mike Pence and other underlings.

Even when he was engaged, he really wasn’t. For example, several weeks ago he claimed that his tax bill was moving through Congress, when it hadn’t been written yet. It still hasn’t, btw.

James Downie writes in WaPo that “in both making and executing laws, passiveness to the point of abdication is a growing hallmark of Trump’s presidency.”

With the Senate trying again, the president has shrunk back even further. In an interview with The 700 Club’s Pat Robertson on Wednesday, Trump showed us how he views his role in the health-care debate. “I am sitting in the Oval Office with a pen in hand,” he said, “waiting for our senators to give it to me.” Twice more he cast himself as a passive actor: “Now we have a President that’s waiting to sign it. … I’m sitting waiting for that bill to come to my desk.” Even as he acknowledges that “it would be very bad” if Senate Republicans fail, he suggests there is no role for him in getting a bill passed.

The president has been similarly uninvolved on foreign policy. Where past presidents — of both parties — have reserved final say-so over troop levels in war, Trump has delegated that tremendous responsibility, giving Defense Secretary Jim Mattis authority over the size of U.S. forces in Afghanistan. This comes after six months with no new strategy for the Afghan war — a conflict the United States has been in for more than 15 years. Also missing is a coherent policy for the Middle East, China or for pretty much any other part of the world.

Trump’s apathy is also shown in the slow pace of executive-branch appointments. Of the 564 positions that require Senate confirmation, 374 still have no nominee. Many secretaries and their departments have been stuck waiting for key positions to be filled. The inertia is so total that it can only have come from the very top. And while doing less may ease the burden on Trump’s shoulders, the resulting sluggishness hurts the rest of us.

Meanwhile, the steady drip of unforced errors and self-made scandals has dominated political coverage, which actually isn’t helping Republicans get their agenda passed in spite of the it’s-all-a-diversion theory.

Trump himself is probably unaware that he’s not really doing his job, because he’s never had a job before. One suspects that whatever  his initial engagement, now that the novelty has worn off he’s likely to become even more detached from the job, which probably isn’t nearly as gratifying as he thought it would be.

So when do Congressional Republicans decide the guy is more trouble than he’s worth? It hasn’t happened yet, and I don’t expect it to happen this year. But if the scandals become more incriminating and Trump becomes even less of an asset, they may very well become willing to cut him loose. Pence is the guy they really want to work with, after all.

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Basically, Everything Is Screwed Up

Trump Maladministration

Today I wanted to write about the Senate health care bill, and then CNN reported there were at least eight people at the infamous July 9, 2016 “dirt on Clinton” meeting. One of those was Rinat Akhmetshin, being described as a Russian ex-counter-intelligence officer. See also “Trump Jr.’s Russia meeting sure sounds like a Russian intelligence operation.”

As far as the Senate health bill is concerned, it’s awful. It does nothing to address the real reasons health care is too expensive in the U.S. It relies on “solutions” that have already been found to not work, like high-risk pools and letting insurance companies sell junk insurance. The Republicans seem to think all they need to do is enable young, healthy people to buy cheap insurance and let everyone else die. Medicaid would be slashed considerably. People with preexisting conditions could be denied coverage at any price. See also:

Paul Waldman, “The new GOP health-care plan is still an abomination.”

Sarah Kliff, “The new Senate health care bill — and the return of preexisting conditions — explained

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It’s a Conspiracy, Folks

Trump Maladministration

This Lawrence O’Donnell segment from last night is worth watching —

Among other things, people being interviewed in the clip above discuss how the people behind the July 9, 2016 meeting are all old business associates of the Trump family. There are videos in circulation showing the old man at a party with several of them.

While this week’s revelations have focused on Junior, the dots all connect back to Jared Kushner. We found out about the meeting because Jared Kushner’s lawyers amended his Form SF-86, a questionnaire that is part of the application for national security clearance. Kushner initially submitted the form last January and was soon found to have “forgotten” a lot.

Kushner’s aides have previously told the Times that he holds an interim security clearance, which Sean Bigley, a federal security clearance attorney at Bigley Ranish, LLC described to TPM as a “golden ticket” that provides government employees with “the full level of access” needed for an applicant to perform his or her role.

Kushner’s failure to disclose dozens of contacts with foreigners, including the CEO of a Russian state-owned bank and the Russian ambassador to the United States, have prompted Democrats to call for his interim clearance to be reviewed or pulled entirely. White House spokeswoman Sarah Huckabee Sanders on Tuesday dodged questions about whether Kushner still had it.

When the Times first broke the news of Kushner’s omissions in April, Gorelick [Kushner’s lawyer] told the newspaper that they were made in error. Kushner submitted his lengthy SF-86 form prematurely on Jan. 18, Gorelick said at the time, and his office informed the FBI the next day that he would be providing additional information about his foreign contacts.

“Amending” the form isn’t unusual, the article says, and Kushner probably won’t get in trouble for initially filing an incomplete one. But there’s more.

Yesterday, McClatchy reported that Kushner’s role in the campaign has drawn attention

Investigators at the House and Senate Intelligence committees and the Justice Department are examining whether the Trump campaign’s digital operation – overseen by Jared Kushner – helped guide Russia’s sophisticated voter targeting and fake news attacks on Hillary Clinton in 2016.

Congressional and Justice Department investigators are focusing on whether Trump’s campaign pointed Russian cyber operatives to certain voting jurisdictions in key states – areas where Trump’s digital team and Republican operatives were spotting unexpected weakness in voter support for Hillary Clinton, according to several people familiar with the parallel inquiries.

Also under scrutiny is the question of whether Trump associates or campaign aides had any role in assisting the Russians in publicly releasing thousands of emails, hacked from the accounts of top Democrats, at turning points in the presidential race, mainly through the London-based transparency web site WikiLeaks. …

… By Election Day, an automated Kremlin cyberattack of unprecedented scale and sophistication had delivered critical and phony news about the Democratic presidential nominee to the Twitter and Facebook accounts of millions of voters. Some investigators suspect the Russians targeted voters in swing states, even in key precincts.

Russia’s operation used computer commands knowns as “bots” to collect and dramatically heighten the reach of negative or fabricated news about Clinton, including a story in the final days of the campaign accusing her of running a pedophile ring at a Washington pizzeria.

One source familiar with Justice’s criminal probe said investigators doubt Russian operatives controlling the so-called robotic cyber commands that fetched and distributed fake news stories could have independently “known where to specifically target … to which high-impact states and districts in those states.”

It gets juicier.

Among other things, congressional investigators are looking into whether Russian operatives, who successfully penetrated voting registration systems in Illinois, Arizona and possibly other states, shared any of that data with the Trump campaign, according to a report in Time.

“I get the fact that the Russian intel services could figure out how to manipulate and use the bots,” Virginia Sen. Mark Warner told Pod Save America recently. “Whether they could know how to target states and levels of voters that the Democrats weren’t even aware (of) really raises some questions … How did they know to go to that level of detail in those kinds of jurisdictions?”

The Russians appear to have targeted women and African-Americans in two of the three decisive states, Wisconsin and Michigan, “where the Democrats were too brain dead to realize those states were even in play,” Warner said.

To those who are certain the Trump/Russians stole the 2016 election, I would like to point out that if the Clinton campaign hadn’t been so brain dead, there would have been fewer vulnerabilities to exploit. Ultimately, it was Clinton’s election to lose, and she lost it. She might very well have lost it had the Russians done nothing at all. Historians will probably be arguing the point for the rest of eternity. But this is about something bigger than who won the election.

Back to Jared Kushner — this is from an article published in the New York Times this morning:

While Donald Trump Jr. has been on the firing line, the meeting with Ms. Veselnitskaya could arguably be a bigger distraction for Mr. Kushner. As a senior adviser to the president, he is involved in several of the administration’s most sensitive foreign-policy issues, from China to the Middle East peace process. His involvement in the meeting led reporters to ask the White House whether he still held his security clearance.

Also under scrutiny is how forthcoming Mr. Kushner was with his father-in-law about the nature of the June meeting. He met with Mr. Trump to discuss the issue, according to advisers to the White House, around the time he updated his federal disclosure form to include Ms. Veselnitskaya’s name on a list of foreign contacts that Mr. Kushner was required to submit to the F.B.I. to obtain a security clearance.

Mr. Kushner supplemented the list of foreign contacts three times, adding more than 100 names, people close to him said.

Mr. Kushner played down the significance of the meeting and omitted significant details, according to two people who were briefed on the exchange. They said Mr. Kushner informed the president that he had met with a Russian foreign national, and that while he had to report the name, it would not cause a problem for the administration.

Another official said Mr. Kushner’s assurance to the president was based on the fact that nothing came of the June meeting.

Meanwhile, the old man appears to be in a kind of denial. He has been saying that his son did nothing wrong, but earlier today in Paris he blamed Loretta Lynch for allowing the Russian attorney into the country. So, it’s all Obama’s fault.

Even weirder, though, is that according to the New York Times article linked above, Trump believes the worst is over.

The fierce criticism of a meeting between Mr. Trump’s eldest son, Donald Trump Jr., and a Kremlin-linked lawyer in June 2016 has left the president by turns angry, defensive and protective but ultimately relieved that for now, the worst appears to be over, people who spoke to him said Wednesday.

Oh, sweetums, I doubt the worst has even started yet. We’ll know what the worst is when we hear from the Mueller investigation, and that may take awhile.

I want to close with something Josh Marshall wrote yesterday, which is that the Trumpettes don’t seem to understand what kind of trouble they are in.

The abiding sense I get is not simply that they don’t know the magnitude of the legal threat but that they don’t understand the nature of the threat either. Again and again they seem to think the legal vulnerability can be trumped by good news cycles or getting the press to focus on some other individual.  They don’t seem to get that a big, sprawling federal investigation like this, untethered from the political chain of command and led by one of the top law enforcement professionals of his generation, trundles onward with a perfect indifference to whether you win the morning or kill it in 10 or a 100 different news cycles. Those things just don’t matter. And yet my sense at least is that Jared Kushner thinks he is helping himself by knifing his brother-in-law – as though if Don Jr is at the center of a media firestorm for a few days, Mueller will just forget about him.

Here is an example of what I’m talking about. This is from Mike Allen’s morning Axios email.

The view in Kushner’s orbit is that the brutal new revelations are more P.R. problems than legal problems. And if he makes progress with his Middle East peace efforts, perceptions would be very different.

Again, this strikes me as a profound and dangerous naïveté. These are certainly not PR problems. Prosecutors, meanwhile, really don’t care how well you’re doing on the policy front. But even if you grant the nonsensical premise – that grave legal problems can be managed with good PR or even substantive policy successes – this is an inane statement.

Yeah, and how hard can it be to broker peace in the Middle East anyway? It’s not like anybody ever really tried before, is it?

New York’s business and media world is a cockpit of vipers. It’s hard to say anyone who comes out of that world is green or wet behind the ears. But Washington DC, and especially big federal criminal investigations, are different. It does not prepare you for that. If you look at Trump’s own career, there’s a persistent pattern. Get into a jam and you call in the lawyers, make threats, threaten lawsuits. If someone gets in your way you bleed them for years in court. If things go bad, you settle and move on. There’s also the tabloids. They look vicious. But they can also be deeply pliant for the rich. Landing a blow by planting a nasty story in the Post is a persistent theme of Trump’s racket for decades. Being a longtime informant for the FBI solves other problems. Having a problem with a disloyal? Fire them and threaten retribution. There’s probably an NDA already in place. They can be dealt with.

Kushner, notoriously, bought The New York Observer as one of his first gambits after taking over the family business when his dad headed to the big house. But he reportedly used the paper as a tool to attack business enemies. Kushner’s interest in the Observer has always struck me as of a piece with Trump’s modus operandi with the New York tabloids.

Because of the President’s damaged personality and perennial and chronic anger it can seem like he’s different, that he gets the magnitude of the situation. I don’t think he does. Every reverse is because he’s being treated unfairly or let down by Reince Priebus or Steve Bannon or now his loyalist lawyer Marc Kasowitz. The problems won’t go away because his staff can’t stop the leaks. In a situation like this there aren’t a lot of people you can effectively buy or destroy. This is a legal world that Trump has very little experience with.

A big federal investigation like this is like a broad lava flow. It moves slowly but it is unstoppable. It burns and crushes things in its wake. And things too big or unburnable it just covers over. The little antics and PR gambits mainly do not matter. Key players in this mix don’t seem to appreciate that.

I wish the lava flow would move a little faster. Do read all of Josh Marshall’s piece. And see also Paul Waldman, “The Trump White House Is a Confederacy of Dingbats.”

Update: See also Nicholas Kristof, “All Roads Now Lead to Kushner.” I had forgotten about Kushner’s plan to set up a secret communications channel with the Russians.

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So What’s Next in the Trump Saga?

Trump Maladministration

The son of the POTUS has pretty much admitted to breaking the law, in public.

In two tweets this morning, Donald Trump Jr. flatly confirmed that the son, son-in-law and campaign chairman of the president of the United States actively sought information that had been clearly and unequivocally described to him as coming from the Russian government — precisely because he believed it would damage his opponent in the 2016 presidential campaign.

Trump Jr. tweeted out the entire email chain of an exchange between him and publicist Rob Goldstone, who had sought to arrange a meeting for him with a Russian lawyer, Natalia Veselnitskaya, at the behest of one of Goldstone’s clients, pop star Emin Agalarov. The exchange had previously been reported to show that Trump Jr. had cause to know that at this meeting, he would be given information about Hillary Clinton, the source for which was somehow the Russian government.

But is this really against the law?

“The emails are simply put damning as a legal matter,” explains Ryan Goodman, a former Defense Department special counsel and current editor of the legal site Just Security. “The text of the emails provide very clear evidence of participation in a scheme to involve the Russian government in federal election interference, in a form that is prohibited by federal criminal law.”

Jens David Ohlin, a law professor at Cornell University, is even blunter: “It’s a shocking admission of a criminal conspiracy.”

Trump Jr.‘s decision to take the meeting in and of itself likely violated campaign finance law, which does not require you to actually get anything useful from foreigners. In other words, the mere fact that Trump Jr. asked for information from a Russian national about Clinton might have constituted a federal crime.

“The law states that no person shall knowingly solicit or accept from a foreign national any contribution to a campaign of an item of value,” Goodman tells me. “There is now a clear case that Donald Trump Jr. has met all the elements of the law, which is a criminally enforced federal statute.”

Per Vox, here is the statute in question. Here are a couple of pertinent passages:

A foreign national shall not, directly or indirectly, make a contribution or a donation of money or other thing of value, or expressly or impliedly promise to make a contribution or a donation, in connection with any Federal, State, or local election. …

… A solicitation is an oral or written communication that, construed as reasonably understood in the context in which it is made, contains a clear message asking, requesting, or recommending that another person make a contribution, donation, transfer of funds, or otherwise provide anything of value.

See also The Most Gobsmacking Details From Trump Jr.’s Russian Meeting Email Chain.

The question is, what happens next? Is somebody going to indict Junior? Who would that be? What’s the follow up? I honestly don’t know.

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Donald Trump, Jr.: How Stupid Is He?

Trump Maladministration

Although nobody comes out and says it, after Junior voluntarily admitted that he took a meeting with a Russian lawyer because she had promised information that would help his father’s campaign, the biggest question of the day must be, how dumb is this kid, anyway? 

The New York Times had a story that began this way —

President Trump’s eldest son, Donald Trump Jr., was promised damaging information about Hillary Clinton before agreeing to meet with a Kremlin-connected Russian lawyer during the 2016 campaign, according to three advisers to the White House briefed on the meeting and two others with knowledge of it.

The meeting was also attended by the president’s campaign chairman at the time, Paul J. Manafort, and his son-in-law, Jared Kushner. Mr. Manafort and Mr. Kushner recently disclosed the meeting, though not its content, in confidential government documents described to The New York Times.

But instead of denying that the meeting had anything to do with getting dirt on Hillary, Fredo Trump admitted it.

I was asked to have a meeting by an acquaintance I knew from the 2013 Miss Universe pageant with an individual who I was told might have information helpful to the campaign. I was not told her name prior to the meeting. I asked Jared and Paul to attend, but told them nothing of the substance. We had a meeting in June 2016. After pleasantries were exchanged, the woman stated that she had information that individuals connected to Russia were funding the Democratic National Committee and supporting Ms. Clinton. Her statements were vague, ambiguous and made no sense. No details or supporting information was provided or even offered. It quickly became clear that she had no meaningful information.

Apparently, in Junior’s mind there was no collusion, since (he says) the Russian lawyer had no useful information. But he took the meeting with the Russian lawyer in the expectation that she would provide information to help the Trump campaign. Whether the information was of any actual use is beside the point.

Andrew Prokop writes for Vox,

Trump Jr. has already changed his story about this meeting several times — first claiming he had no such meeting, then claiming it was about the topic of Russian adoptions, and only now admitting he agreed to take it because an “acquaintance” he met when Trump’s Miss Universe pageant was held in Moscow told him this person “might have information helpful to the campaign.”

This report comes after a pair of Wall Street Journal scoops revealing that a Republican operative contacted Russian hackers in an effort to obtain Hillary Clinton’s deleted emails — and that the operative suggested that Trump adviser Michael Flynn was involved with his effort.

Together, these stories provide our first real indications that high-level people on Trump’s team attempted to work with people tied to the Russian government to get information that could impact the campaign and hurt Clinton’s chances.

We don’t know if the Russian lawyer, Natalia Veselnitskaya, was acting on behalf of the Russian government. We don’t know, really, what information she may have provided. Everyone involved insists that Donald Trump himself knew nothing about any of this. But Junior’s own admission tells us that he and other high-level elements of the Trump campaign were open to collusion with foreign nationals on behalf of the campaign, which is, by some accounts, a violation of federal campaign law.

And Jonathan Chait wrote,

Trump Jr.’s latest defense is that while he sought damaging information from Veselnitskaya, she failed to deliver any. However, the timing of events around this meeting is instructive. The hacker Guccifer announced the theft of Clinton emails the month before, and Guccifer’s only publicly known connection to Russia was his use of Russian proxy servers. But three days after the meeting with the Trump campaign, Julian Assange, Putin’s pass-through publishing source for email hacks, announced, “We have upcoming leaks in relation to Hillary Clinton … We have emails pending publication, that is correct.”

The most interesting follow-up question is, what was the nature of the damaging information that Veselnitskaya promised? Stolen emails, perhaps?

See also Josh Marshall:

The Times reports that they got the information from “three advisers to the White House briefed on the meeting and two others with knowledge of it.” They apparently talked after the release of the first story. This is highly, highly significant. Needless to say, advisors to the White House are not in the business of taking highly damaging stories and volunteering new information which makes them catastrophically damaging. The only reason a President’s allies ever do something like that is either to get ahead of something much more damaging or get a first crack at shaping the public understanding of something much more damaging. There’s really no other explanation. We don’t know yet what drove them to volunteer such highly damaging information. Five of them did it. It wasn’t a matter of one person going rogue.

Junior claimed the real purpose of the meeting was to enable U.S. adoptions of Russian orphans. Back to Jonathan Chait:

One of the Russian government’s highest priorities is to repeal an American law, named after a murdered Russian dissident who exposed corruption at the hands of Vladimir Putin, which allows financial penalties for Russian human-rights violators. Natalia Veselnitskaya, the Russian lawyer who met with the Trump campaign, is spearheading this effort. Russia retaliated for the hated law by suspending American adoptions of Russian children: A discussion of adoption inherently implies a discussion of favors to be granted to Putin’s regime.

So there may be some truth to the adoption story, but that hardly makes it innocent. Obviously, Putin will want a quid pro quo. And this was before the election, never mind the inauguration.

And, as Josh Marshall wrote also, Junior’s claim that he thought that the DNC and Hillary Clinton might be colluding with Russians is preposterous. It’s the sort of excuse somebody with very little imagination might come up with, though.

See also Donald Trump Jr. just contradicted a whole bunch of White House denials of Russian contacts.

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The Last Word on the G20 Summit

Trump Maladministration

Chris Uhlmann of Australia Broadcasting Corporation sums up Trump’s performance at the G20 Summit better than anyone else.

See also:

ABC’s political editor Chris Uhlmann didn’t pull any punches when he delivered his wrap-up of Trump’s appearance at the conference, calling him an “uneasy, lonely, awkward figure” who was left “isolated and friendless” with “no desire and no capacity to lead the world”. …

Uhlmann also pointed out that given the uncomfortable divide between himself and the most of the other G20 leaders on the Paris Climate Accord, a “deft” President would have found a topic with which to rally them.

“And he had the perfect one: North Korea’s missile tests,” the reporter explained.

“Other leaders expected it [a statement condemning it], they were prepared to back it, but it never came.”

At the end of the two minute video, Uhlmann provided a chilling prediction for the future under this US President.

“Donald Trump has pressed fast forward on the decline of the United States as a global leader. Some will cheer the decline of America, but I think we’ll miss it when it’s gone — and that’s the biggest threat to the values of the West, which he claims to hold so dear.”

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No More Leader of the Free World

Trump Maladministration

I was curious to know where the term “leader of the free world” even came from, and found this:

The first time the phrase “leader of the free world” appeared in TheNew York Times was in a November 1948 essay by the British economist Barbara Ward, which urged Western unity against the communist threat. With its unchallenged economic might, the United States was “potentially the political leader of the free world.” The term was commonly employed to refer to the United States from the late-1940s onward because of the weakness of the other democratic states (and possible candidates for leadership) like Britain and France, as well as U.S. direction to the anti-communist coalition, including Marshall Aid, the formation of NATO, and intervention in the Korean War.

And just what was or is the “free world”? Why is that term still in use?

It was first widely employed in World War II to describe the countries resisting the fascist states. … The idea of a free world peaked during the height of the Cold War, when the U.S. government depicted a Manichean struggle between a democratic alliance and a communist realm set on world domination. At a press conference in 1958, President Dwight D. Eisenhower said: “[T]he reason we call it ‘free world’ is because each nation in it wants to remain independent under its own government and not under some dictatorial form of government. So, to the basic ideals, all of us must subscribe.”

The President of the United States continued to be referred to as the “leader of the free world” even after the Cold War ended, although exactly why is a bit hazy. The United States has played a leadership role, for better or worse, in many international organizations, such as NATO and G20. The term mostly seems to have been a nod to the liberal world order that formed during World War II and the Cold War.

Well, that’s over now. The other big kids in the Free World room don’t consider Donald Trump to be a leader, but an annoyance to be worked around.

For years the United States was the dominant force and set the agenda at the annual gathering of the leaders of the world’s largest economies.

But on Friday, when President Trump met with other leaders at the Group of 20 conference, he found the United States isolated on everything from trade to climate change, and faced with the prospect of the group’s issuing a statement on Saturday that lays bare how the United States stands alone. …

…What recent events have underscored, though — and especially at the G-20 — is that no nation is today large or powerful enough to impose rules on everyone else. In advancing his views, Mr. Trump has alienated allies and made the United States seem like its own private island.

Trump is doing this in the name of creating American jobs, but seems to me this is a losing strategy. Our former allies (under Trump’s leadership, the U.S. has no allies) are threatening a trade war if he goes through with some of his protectionist plans.

Targets could include American whiskey imports. “I don’t want to tell you in detail what we’re doing,” Mr. Juncker said. “But what I would like to tell you is that within a few days — we won’t need two months for that — we could react with countermeasures.”

The Italian prime minister, Paolo Gentiloni, warned that new protectionist trade measures could bring “contagion” that would slow the growth of the world economy. “We cannot waste this moment of recovery, giving signals of protectionism or of incorrect trade behavior,” he said.

But as Mr. Trump contemplates protectionism, Europe and Japan reached a landmark free trade agreement this week. Mexico and China, two of the United States’ largest trading partners, have been mulling their own deal. The world is moving ahead regardless.

… and without the United States. See also “The End of the Anglo-American Order?” at the BBC, “G20 Closes With Rebuke to Trump’s Climate Change Stance” at CNN, and “Trump leaves leaders fearing the future as G-20 summit closes” at the Washington Post.

Trump’s meeting with Putin also proved to be an embarrassment. See Putin 1, Trump 0.

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Hobby Lobby and the Bible Totem


After a stressful week I’m ready to indulge in some schadenfreude over Hobby Lobby’s recent tangle with the Justice Department.

The arts-and-crafts retailer Hobby Lobby has agreed to pay a $3 million fine for illegally importing thousands of ancient Iraqi clay artifacts smuggled into the United States, federal prosecutors said Wednesday.

In addition to the fine, Hobby Lobby will forfeit thousands of clay bullae, cuneiform tablets and cylinder seals that were falsely labeled and shipped to the company through the United Arab Emirates and Israel, according to a civil complaint and settlement agreement in the U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of New York.

Hobby Lobby says they didn’t know the tablets were stolen.

According to the complaint, Hobby Lobby got conflicting information about where the artifacts had been stored and never met or communicated with the dealer selling them. When it came time to pay, the company wired money to seven separate bank accounts. …

… Starting in late 2010, a United Arab Emirates-based dealer sent 10 packages to three different Hobby Lobby addresses in Oklahoma City, with shipping labels reading “ceramic tiles” or “clay tiles (sample),” according to the complaint. No formal entries were made for the shipments. Prosecutors said the use of multiple addresses was “consistent with methods used by cultural property smugglers to avoid scrutiny by Customs.”

U.S. Customs and Border Protection later intercepted five additional packages, all of them falsely declaring that the artifacts inside came from Turkey. A final shipment containing about 1,000 clay bullae arrived at one of Hobby Lobby’s addresses from Israel in September 2011. That one also misrepresented the artifacts’ country of origin, according to the complaint.

They didn’t know the artifacts were stolen. They didn’t understand the laws about shipping antiquities into the country. Yeah, right.

Making all this even juicier is that the Green family that owns Hobby Lobby also is the main force behind a new Museum of the Bible, scheduled to open soon in Washington DC near the Mall. The Greens had promised to house more than 44,000 biblical texts and artifacts in this museum. Museum administration is in damage control mode, righteously declaring that all the tablets the Greens were importing were not intended to be put in the museum. So the Greens were going to line their driveway with them?

Or, maybe not.

Candida Moss, the co-author of a forthcoming book on the Green family’s rapid acquisition of Biblical antiquities and attempts to promote the influence of Christianity on public life, said that the museum has tried to distance itself from its chairman and his craft stores since the media began reporting on his antiquities acquisitions two years ago.

“The Greens remain very much involved. Green is still head of the board,” she said. “The fact is, they’re not as separate as they claim. Many of the artifacts will be on loan from the Green collection. There are other items in their collection that scholars are asking questions about.”

Brent Clark, an Oklahoma lawyer also working on a manuscript about the Green family, agreed: “Steve Green is going to be in charge of that thing, come hell or high water.”

The museum is still expected to be a popular tourist attraction, but scholars are likely to keep their distance.

Yates, the art crime expert, said that many major journals of archaeology research refuse to publish articles based on artifacts whose provenance can’t be proven, and researchers won’t be willing to do work that they can’t publish.

I’m not an archaeologist, but it’s not hard to imagine that if an artifact is looted from its original site so that its provenance is lost, its  value for historical research is greatly diminished.

Candida Moss and Joel Baden, who are writing a book titled Bible Nation: The United States of Hobby Lobby, wrote an op ed for the New York Times that vigorously pooh-poohed the idea that the Green’s looted stuff was not intended for the museum. Further, they allege that a whole lot of the stuff that is scheduled to be displayed in the museum has a sketchy provenance as well.

Although we can now point to a large number of items in the collection that were illicitly acquired, there remain thousands and thousands more about which we can say nothing: not because their provenance is clean, but because it is unknown. Though scholars have been pleading for years with the Greens and the Museum of the Bible to provide all of the information for all of their artifacts, there has been no transparency whatsoever.

What part of “Thou shalt not steal” skipped your attention, folks?

The particular legal issue of falsified import papers is merely the tip of a much larger ethical iceberg. The real issue here is the black market in looted antiquities, a market that has loomed beneath the surface of storied museum collections and private holdings for many years, but that became especially visible during the first Iraq War and the period of regional destabilization that followed.

It is not the case, as some have alleged, that Hobby Lobby bought artifacts from ISIS. Though it is true that ISIS profits by looting artifacts and passing them on to dealers and collectors in the West, the shipments for which Hobby Lobby was scrutinized predate the rise of ISIS.

But Hobby Lobby did participate in and perpetuate the same market from which ISIS profits. If collectors like the Green family were unwilling to purchase unprovenanced antiquities — items that do not have a clear and clean history of discovery and purchase — the black market would dry up. As long as there are buyers, there will be sellers. It is because collectors like Hobby Lobby are willing to pay a premium and look the other way that looting continues. They dramatically expanded the market for biblical antiquities in the late 2000s.

Note that Moss is a professor of New Testament studies at Notre Dame, and Baden is a professor of the Hebrew Bible at Yale.

The point is not just that the Greens have been encouraging the looting of historical artifacts in the name of “preserving” them, they’ve also been breaking biblical law to stock their glorified Museum of the Bible. Yeah, that makes the Greens hypocrites of the first order, but what else?

The whole champions of Christianity pose may have just been a marketing ploy all along. But it’s also the case that for the more fanatical Christians in the U.S., the Bible ceased to be a scripture a long time ago. It’s become more of a totem, a sacred symbol assumed to have spiritual power that represents the tribe of self-proclaimed conservative Christians. What it actually says about anything is irrelevant.

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More TechnoDukkha


The internet service went out Monday night. It was back briefly on Tuesday, but this is the first time I’ve been online since Monday. And I’m exhausted from yelling at people at the Cable company.

The phones were out too, and here in the country my cell phone coverage is spotty. The cable guys were not coming to the house unless they could call ahead and get confirmation someone was there. And we weren’t getting the calls. By this afternoon I was telling the poor people answering the phones that they had damn well better send someone over, confirmation or not, or I was going to eat their offspring.

I’ll post something tomorrow.


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Stuff to Read Over the Fourth

Trump Maladministration

Some articles I want to comment on before they scroll out of memory —

Lindy West, “Save Free Speech From Trolls

West calls out the Right for “weaponizing” the concept of freedom of speech to shout down dissent or criticism, especially when it comes from women.

Nothing is more important than the First Amendment, the internet men say, provided you interpret the First Amendment exactly the same way they do: as a magic spell that means no one you don’t like is allowed to criticize you.

In other words, they react to people expressing disagreement with them as an infringement on their free speech rights. This is something I’ve written about before; see “First Amendment Primer (for Righties)” from February 2013:

Righties do love their First Amendment rights, but they don’t understand them very well. For example, on the Right it is commonly believed the right to freedom of speech includes a right to not be disagreed with. (This is something I’ve written about before, so for examples, see “This Is Rich,” and “America Has Lost Its Mind.”)

People, read the First Amendment. It says Congress cannot infringe in freedom of speech or the press, and this prohibition has been extended to state government by the 14th Amendment. In a legal sense, this refers to censorship, and censorship is something that only government can do.  A privately owned newspaper or magazine has an absolute right to not publish everything submitted to it, and that is not censorship, either. I have a right to delete comments that irritate me, and that is not censorship, either.  And if somebody expresses disagreement with you, that is so not censorship.

By the same token, if a mob of people somehow prevent you from speaking, or thugs who don’t like your editorials come and smash up your printing press, that’s not censorship, although it would certainly be breaking other laws.

I’m sorry to say that some of this hairbrained thinking has crept into the Left. After Kathy Griffin’s recent, stupid “trump beheading” stunt, I saw a lot of “don’t censor Kathy!” and “stand with Kathy’s First Amendment rights” on social media. But I didn’t see anybody attempting to censor Kathy, nor did I see anybody saying she had no right to publish the dumb photo. All I saw was criticism. Criticism is not censorship. And just because you have a right to smear yourself with honey and sit on an anthill, that doesn’t mean you should.

McKay Coppins, “How the Left Lost Its Mind” 

The Trump era has given rise to a vast alternative left-wing media infrastructure that operates largely out of the view of casual news consumers, but commands a massive audience and growing influence in liberal America. There are polemical podcasters and partisan click farms; wild-eyed conspiracists and cynical fabulists. Some traffic heavily in rumor and wage campaigns of misinformation; others are merely aggregators and commentators who have carved out a corner of the web for themselves. But taken together, they form a media universe where partisan hysteria is too easily stoked, and fake news can travel at the speed of light.

Before we go on, let me try to quiet the cries of “False equivalence!” before they begin: No, these personalities and publications do not yet wield the same influence in the Democratic Party that their counterparts do in the GOP. But ignoring them would be a mistake. In recent months, some of the most irresponsible actors in this world have proven alarmingly adept at influencing venerated figures of the left—from public intellectuals, to world-famous celebrities, to elected officials.

See also “The Rise of Progressive Fake News.”

I think trolls and fake news did a lot of damage to the Democrats last year, and people across the liberal-progressive spectrum were falling for it. Clinton supporters were being told Bernie Sanders was a friend to the NRA known to hate women; Sanders supporters were being told Hillary Clinton would be indicted any minute now. None of that helped. And it seems to be getting worse.

Aaron Blake: “The biggest winner in the current health-care debate: Single-payer

 … after weeks of debate, there is one clear winner so far: single-payer health care.

No, single-payer isn’t going to happen at the end of this debate — or even the end of this year or this decade, necessarily. But the logical foundations for it are being laid in our political debate just about every single day. And when you pair that with the rising public support for government-run health care, it’s clear in which direction this whole debate is trending.

This article cheered me up, needless to say.

The most surprising aspect of the current health-care debate, for me, has been how Republicans have essentially given up on making the conservative case for their bills. They aren’t even arguing that the free market would lead to higher-quality care, efficiency and medical advancements, as the GOP of old might have. Instead, they are trying to obscure the reality that their bills would cut Medicaid by hundreds of millions of dollars (versus where funding is currently set) and would increase the number of uninsured Americans by potential 20 million or more. …

…That political reality has also basically forced Republicans to concede this point: that people being uninsured is a very bad thing, and that cutting funding to Medicaid is a bad thing. They have basically conceded that government involvement in health care is a good thing — or, at least, a necessary thing. That wasn’t the argument they were making against Obamacare eight years ago.

Democrats, meanwhile, are gradually talking themselves into supporting single-payer, it would seem. Their laser-like focus on the number who are uninsured and the Medicaid cuts has a logical conclusion. There is only one way to make sure nobody is uninsured, after all.

We’re a long way from overwhelming public support for a taxpayer-funded national health care system, which is what the phrase “single payer” is shorthand for. There are very few, if any, “pure” single-payer systems on the planet, in which all health care is paid out of government funds. The majority of industrialized nations have some variation of a mixed public-private system, although in every case I know of people can get nearly any medical treatment they really need through the public system.

Andrew Mills, “The plane truth: How we caught Chris Christie sunbathing on a closed beach

Anatomy of a scoop.

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